The Judges Chamber – Behind the Scenes at Miami Rum Renaissance

The stemmed crystal glass in front of me holds translucent blue liquid. Surrounding it are several dozen similar glasses, all containing clear liquid, which makes the blue liquid really stand out in the lineup. A few feet away sit fourteen other people, including a high-ranking U.S. Federal Reserve executive, a retired NASCAR engineer, and the most well-known living Tiki bartender in the world. We each have identical sets of glasses before us, and we’re told that all the glasses contain white rum.  The task is to evaluate the color and clarity of each rum on a scale from one to ten. Even the blue rum, which is rather fetching, in a Windex sort of way. The clarity isn’t an issue – it’s free of any particular matter, but what about the color? It obviously intentional, and not unpleasant to look at, but how to score it amongst a field of non-blue rums?

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Every year in April, hundreds of rum experts descend on Miami for Miami Rum Renaissance, which is held over three days. Rum companies and related vendors have booths where attendees talk to brand representatives and sample dozens of rums. One of the festival’s highlights is the Rum XP awards. A panel of judges evaluate the rums exhibited in the show, and pick the best examples in eighteen different classes. Within each class, there’s an overall winner (“Best in Class”), and up to five Gold medal winners.

Who decides which rums get the medal nods? The judging panel at Rum Renaissance varies from year to year depending on people’s schedules, but is anchored by the Rum XPs, a title bestowed by the Burr family, Robert, Robyn and Rob, the folks behind Rum Renaissance. Current Rum XPs (only some of which were in Miami this year) include Martin Cate, Ian “Global Rum Ambassador” Burrell, Ian Williams (author of Rum, the social and sociable history of the real Spirit of 1776), and Dave Broom, as well as rum festival organizers like Leonardo Pinto (Rum Fest Rome) and bloggers like Helena Tiare Olson, Peter Holland, and Matt Robold. Judges without the Rum XP title are likely candidates to become XPs at some point.  This year the European Rum XP crowd was in short supply, but the U.S. West Coast was well represented in the judging — Martin Cate, Suzanne Long (Longitude, in Oakland, CA), Marie King (Tonga Hut, in Los Angeles), Forrest Cokely, and yours truly were among the fifteen judges. Over the three days prior to the festival, we sampled more than one hundred rums. It’s a dirty job, but somebody has to do it. What follows is my tale as a first time rum judge.

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Wicked Dolphin presentation at Miami Rum Renaissance, 2016
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Mezan presentation at Miami Rum Renaissance, 2016
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Mezan presentation at Miami Rum Renaissance, 2016

Judging at Rum Renaissance is an all-day endurance run, stretching from mid-morning through the late evening. A typical day starts out with a rum company sponsored breakfast in a hotel conference room. While eating, the company representatives present their product and take questions from the judges. On Wednesday, Florida’s Wicked Dolphin Rum told us their story which includes some interesting barrel aging techniques like aging rum on the bottom of the ocean off the Florida coast. Thursday’s breakfast was sponsored by Mezan, a UK independent bottler of rums. Mezan ambassador Warren Bobrow regaled us with the backstory of the three currently available Meza expressions from Jamaica, Panama and Guyana before creating a tasty breakfast cocktail using the highly funky Jamaica XO rum. An extra treat was tasting one of the few remaining, widely coveted Jamaica 2000 (Long Pond) Mezan release.

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Bob Leonard, photographer, Robyn, Rob, and Robert Burr at Miami Rum Renaissance, 2016
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Judging at Miami Rum Renaissance, 2016
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Judging at Miami Rum Renaissance, 2016

Fortified by breakfast, we file into another conference room for the first of the day’s two judging sessions. The room holds numerous long tables in neat rows, each with chairs for two judges. Roughly two dozen long stemmed tasting glasses are each filled with about an ounce of rum and carefully positioned on top of a numbered placemat. Each glass is topped with a paper cupcake wrapper to minimize evaporation from the glass.

Also at each judging station:

  • A scoring sheet, pen, and notepad
  • A plate of crackers
  • A large pitcher of water
  • A water tumbler
  • A large Styrofoam cup

The scoring sheet holds a numbered grid where scores are entered. Each of the first four columns are an aspect to judge each rum on:

  • Color, clarity: 10 points
  • Aroma: 20 points
  • Taste: 50 points
  • Finish: 20 points

Looking at the sheet and the two dozen rums arrayed before me, it felt slightly overwhelming. The session is two hours, and starting out in the first session, I had no idea if I would make it through all of them in time.

While I’ve reviewed numerous rums for this blog, as well as Distiller.com, my typical review process focuses on a single rum and creating detailed tasting notes, which take 15 minutes or more to tease out and describe individual flavors. With twenty or more rums to cover in a two hour session, my usual review technique went out the window in favor of a much more streamlined, numeric approach. When reviewing a rum, you obviously know what rum is in your glass, and likely have some idea of its backstory and some idea what flavor profile to expect. In contrast, judging at Rum Renaissance (and just about all spirits competitions) is done blind. You sit down to a phalanx of glasses and move through them quickly and methodically. There’s not much time to ponder over whether it’s clove or cinnamon you’re picking up on the finish.

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Judging at Miami Rum Renaissance, 2016
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Judging at Miami Rum Renaissance, 2016

Jumping in headfirst, I complete the first few glasses in anything but an efficient manner. Lots of cracker nibbling, ponderous small sips, and moving cupcake wrappers out of the way. However I wisely sat in the back row and observed how the more experienced judges worked. Each has their own style – some pull off all the cupcake wrappers immediately, but most leave them on till the last moment. Some rearrange their glasses into neat lines and divide into subgroups. Many hold up the glass to the light to check for clarity. One double checks all his math on an iPad. Nonetheless, all the experienced judges have their own pattern and stick to it from beginning to finish.

By the time I’d fumbled through a dozen or so entries, my pattern started to solidify into the following:

  • Remove the cupcake wrapper, add to pile.
  • Hold glass up to light, check for any particles or clarity issues. Almost invariably there are none. Modern spirits production seems to have this down. Jot down the score.
  • Before bringing the glass to my nose, take a few slow, deep breaths to reset my nose while swirling the glass a few times.
  • Bring the glass to my nose. Smell it deeply three or four times. Jot down the score. It was surprising how much the aroma intensity varies within a category. I gave extra points for having strong, pleasing aroma rather than a weak aroma that I have to hunt around to lock onto.
  • Take a big sip, slowly swirling it around in my mouth without swallowing. Ponder its taste and pleasantness for about five seconds. Discretely spit it out into the Styrofoam cup. Jot down the score. Warning – never look in the Styrofoam cup!
  • Place the glass back into its numbered slot for possible future reference, while concurrently evaluating the finish. Jot down the score.
  • Take a small bite of cracker. Take a good sized sip of water. Calculate the total score and double check it while letting my palate reset.

Over the course of three days and six tasting sessions, my technique improved to the point where I wasn’t always among the last two judges to finish. Some judges like Bahama Bob Leonard are lightning fast, downright machines! I was amazed that he completed each session first, and in about half the time of we slowpokes.

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Judging at Miami Rum Renaissance, 2016
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Ian Williams brings color and clarity to any situation

At the start of each session, the competition staff gives any special instructions regarding that session, i.e. “Yes, we know one of the white rum entries is blue.” Most sessions covered more than one category. For instance, in the first session we covered white, premium white, and gold rums. Session instructions provided, the organizers leave the room and close the door.

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Example completed Miami Rum Renaissance, 2016

As judging gets underway, the room goes silent except for the occasional clinking of a glass or water being poured. Occasionally a judge leans over and whispers something to his neighbor. For the most part though, it’s fifteen people working silently in close proximity, methodically working through each sample glasses, one by one. My sense of time diminishes – I only know what glass number I’m working on. Having completed all our rums, we snap photos of our scoresheet for future reference and silently exit the room, paper in hand.

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Reveal room at Miami Rum Renaissance, 2016
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Reveal room at Miami Rum Renaissance, 2016
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Reveal room at Miami Rum Renaissance, 2016

Across the hallway is the reveal room. Here’s where judges learn what exactly they tasted and the often surprising scores they gave each expression. Upon entering, a staffer takes your score sheet to prevent you from modifying numbers after the fact. On one side of the room, a table contains the lineup of all the sessions’ rum bottles, ordered in the same way they appeared in the tasting. Working from the score sheet picture on our phones, we discover what our favorites were, and which rums didn’t fare so well.  With the hard work done, the judges slowly accumulate in the reveal room, enjoying more (revealed) samples, comparing notes, and sharing impressions, e.g., “Tastes like 409 cleaner,” “Please make this stop,” and “Lemon pledge syrup?”

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Puerto Angel presentation at Miami Rum Renaissance, 2016
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Marauda Steel Pan rum at Miami Rum Renaissance, 2016
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Doc Brown’s Really Bad Rum at Miami Rum Renaissance, 2016

A sponsored lunch bridges the morning and afternoon tastings. Our lunch hosts over the three days of judging were Puerto Angel (from Mexico), Marauda, and Doc Brown’s Really Bad Rum. One distills their own rum, one purchases a multi-country rum from a respected blender, and one uses a contract distiller. I found these details important because it influenced how each company approached their presentation, and how much they could tell us about their rums. Without naming names, some were very well prepared while one woefully underestimated how much the judges knew about rum.

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Plantation Pool Party at Miami Rum Renaissance, 2016
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Plantation Pool Party at Miami Rum Renaissance, 2016

By the end of the day we’ve judged nearly four dozen rums, and after all that sipping, sampling, and spitting, rum cocktails are exactly what the doctor ordered! An annual tradition after the first day’s judging is a trip the Mai Kai, a legendary, vintage, completely over the top Tiki palace in Ft. Lauderdale. On Wednesday, crowd favorite Skotlander rum from Denmark hosted a happy hour featuring their unusual rums, a few of which should be on US shores any day now! And with all judging was complete, the grand finale of the judging was Plantation’s outdoor pool party.  Plantation ambassador (and fellow Seattle resident) Rocky Yeh created tasty cocktails, alongside copious tastings of the wide array of Plantation expressions lining the bar top.

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Judges bling at Miami Rum Renaissance, 2016
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Robert Burr announcing winners at Miami Rum Renaissance, 2016

With the hard work of drinking rum for three days complete, the numerical wizards performed their magic quickly to prepare the medal winners list for the next day, the first day of Rum Renaissance. On a stage to one side of the exhibition hall, all of us judges climbed on the stage to be thanked by Robert Burr for our efforts and receive a blingy “RumXP Judge” medallion – Great for getting the attention of the exhibitors on the show floor!

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Puerto Angel takes a medal at Miami Rum Renaissance, 2016
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Just a few of Plantation’s medals at Miami Rum Renaissance, 2016
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Forrest Cokely and Bryan Davis with Santeria’s gold medal at Miami Rum Renaissance, 2016

As Robert announced each medal winner, a representative from the brand raced to the stage to the collect it. Some of the representative collecting the medals spent more time on the stage than off. The brand with the most medals was, once again, Plantation, which landed eight medals. In addition to a single Best in Class winner, between one and five gold medals are also awarded in each category. The reasons why so many medals were awarded brings us into the interesting topic of competitions, medals, and category selection.

To enter into the Rum Renaissance competition, vendors need to commit to having a booth at the show. As you might expect, rum brands pick and choose which shows to attend. Some larger brands like Appleton, Bacardi, El Dorado, and Angostura weren’t at Rum Renaissance this year, so it’s no surprise they didn’t win medals – they weren’t in the competition. The judges have no input as to what rums are in the competition or what the categories are.  We learned the categories at the beginning of each session. The key takeaway for you, the reader, is that when looking at a bottle that proudly highlights the medals it’s won, you need to also consider who else it was up against in the competition.

With such an amazingly diverse spirit as rum, finding categories that everyone agrees on is simply a near impossible task. There’s altogether too many dimensions to consider, including:

  • Cane juice or molasses mash
  • Amount of aging
  • Geographical region
  • Color, e.g. “white,” “gold,” or “black”
  • Proof, e.g. “navy strength,” “overproof.”
  • Flavored or spiced

Almost any rum can fit into more than one category. Mount Gay Eclipse is a lovely rum that could go into either the aged or gold categories. But there are other gold rums, such as Hampden Gold, which are unaged and get their color from caramel. What’s more, consider a rum like Lemon Hart 151. It could easily go in the dark, aged, or overproof categories. No matter what category a competition selects for a rum, inevitably somebody will disagree with its categorization.

As if the problem of a rum that could fit in multiple categories isn’t hard enough for the competition staff, there’s also the inverse problem. Recall the blue rum from earlier. What category does it belong to? It’s not aged, overproof, flavored (blue isn’t a flavor), gold, agricole, or a cachaça. The vendor asked to be entered in the competition, so some category must be selected. The white category is probably a safer bet than gold or dark. Likewise, there was considerable discussion from the judges about how to score the Rhum arrangé  (infused agricole-style rhum), which was presented alongside traditional agricole-style rhums. Should there be a separate “flavored agricole” category? Is that even a thing? I don’t envy the job of the competition director that needs to choose all the categories and assign entries to them.

Certain categories contain far more entries than others, for instance, there were far more white rums than dark. Some categories had as few as two entries, leading to an “Everybody gets a medal” situation with the smaller categories. Collapsing certain small categories into a larger categories may not make sense, however. For instance, there were only two entries in the Aged Rum 15+ year category, but it seems unfair to lump them with 8-year aged rums half their provenance. Easy answers are few and far between. As judges, we all worked diligently to fairly evaluate each rum within the categories presented to us.

In addition to the full gamut of rums that we tasted over three days, the event also included a separate, smaller tasting competition known as the Consumer Rum Jury. In a single session, a panel of twenty rum enthusiasts evaluated only the top ranked rums from the larger tasting competition. The end result was a single Best in Class medal (Siesta Key Toasted Coconut) and eighteen gold, silver, and bronze medals.

0n my final day in Miami, as I was standing in line to check out of the hotel, a woman behind me spotted the shiny “RumXP Judge” medallion I was wearing.  “What the heck is a RumXP?” she asked.  I told her that I was a rum judge. “A rum judge? Is that even a thing?” It’s a natural reaction. Just about everybody I know thinks that my stint as a rum judge was all fun, games, and debauchery. It certainly is fun, no doubt. But as a first time judge, I also learned a great deal, and felt very lucky to be part of a panel of dedicated and extremely knowledgeable rum lovers, making it both enjoyable and a great introduction to yet another level of rum wonkery.

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When rum judges aren’t evaluating rums, they travel to bars and photograph them.
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9 thoughts on “The Judges Chamber – Behind the Scenes at Miami Rum Renaissance”

  1. Great write up Matt. It was nice spending time getting to know you in Miami. It is interesting to read that your experiences with first time judging were so similar to mine. It was a incredibly fun while somewhat taxing after sampling nearly 120 rums. By Sunday I was less interested in drinking rum and more interested in talking about it.

    1. Thanks for the kind words, and ditto for you! Nice to meet you finally, and chat about all sorts of rummy topics. Feel free to share the link if you’re so inclined. Every little bit helps at this stage. 🙂

  2. A really detailed description Matt, very well done!
    I am never able using so many words to describe what I am doing!

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